International pressure is growing on Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan after the assassination of independent journalist Alisher Saipov. The European Union issued a statement October 31 calling on the Kyrgyz government to follow through on a commitment to conduct a "thorough investigation" into the murder. Meanwhile, Amnesty International warned that Saipov's killing will "have a further chilling effect" on freedom of expression in the region.
Saipov, a 26-year-old Uzbek living is Osh, southern Kyrgyzstan, was shot three times at close range as he left the offices of the Uzbek-language newspaper he edited, Siyosat, on October 24. His death has sparked outrage, as many experts on the region believe the Uzbek government may have ordered or even carried out the killing. A statement issued by Amnesty International on October 29 noted that Saipov "had reportedly received anonymous threats over the last few months."
Saipov's murder is now the subject of a news blackout in Uzbekistan. The stony silence of Uzbek media outlets comes after many engaged in a smear campaign in which Saipov was branded a "traitor," a "freak" and a "dirty pro-American."
The journalist, who had also contributed to Ferghana.ru, VOA and RFE/RL, had been an outspoken critic of Uzbek leader Islam Karimov's government. According to colleagues, he believed he was being followed in the days leading up to his death.
In addition to the EU, human rights groups and media organizations have urged the Kyrgyz government to conduct a full investigation into the murder. As part of that police inquiry, Saipov's computer and list of contacts has been seized by police in Osh. Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev is overseeing the investigation, according to media reports.
Kyrgyz ombudsman Tursunbai Bakir Uulu said information gathered so far suggested that a neighboring country's "special service" was involved in the murder, and that "the footsteps are coming from Uzbekistan."
According to some published reports, a spokesman for the Kyrgyz Interior Ministry has confirmed that Kyrgyz and Uzbek authorities are cooperating on the investigation. This has prompted concern among human rights activists about a possible cover-up.
Holly Cartner, Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia director, said, "Saipov's murder is a brutal crime that smacks of retribution for his work. He was a courageous journalist committed to exposing human rights abuses, particularly by the Uzbek government."
In an open letter to Kyrgyz President Bakiyev, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists called attention to the fact that a "state television channel in the Uzbek city of Namangan recently aired a program smearing Saipov as a provocateur who tried to destabilize Uzbekistan with his reporting. Several Uzbek state publications ran similar pieces.
The group's letter went on to say that Uzbek agents are active in Osh, Kyrgyzstan's southern capital. "Uzbek security services have infiltrated southern Kyrgyzstan and have harassed exiled activists and independent journalists who continue reporting on the repressive policies of Karimov's regime," the letter said.
"An immediate and thorough investigation into the brutal murder of Alisher Saipov will demonstrate your personal commitment to press freedom and your readiness to stop injustice in a swift and resolute manner," the CPJ letter to Bakiyev concluded.
Nina Ognianova, CPJ program coordinator for Europe and Central Asia, added in an interview with EurasiaNet, "The investigation has just begun, but if there is a trail leading Tashkent we hope the Kyrgyz will pursue it. We want to remind them that this is unlikely to have been a common crime, but rather one directly related to Saipov's professional work."
An October 29 report broadcast on Kyrgyz State Television indicated that the Kyrgyz government is unlikely to implicate a neighboring state in Saipov's death. The report, citing "preliminary data," suggested that the underground Islamic radical group Hizb-ut-Tahrir may have been behind Saipov's death. Designated a terrorist organization by Uzbekistan and Russia, and banned in Germany, Hizb-ut-Tahrir is an avowed enemy of the existing political order in Central Asia. At the same time, the group has long espoused a policy of non-violence in pursuit of its goal of creating an Islamic caliphate in the region. Irrefutable evidence of Hizb's participation in violent acts has not been uncovered to date.
On October 30, A Kyrgyz Interior Ministry official, Zamir Sydykov, was quoted by the Interfax-Kazakhstan news agency as saying that no evidence linking Uzbek authorities to the crime had yet been found. "There are
Deidre Tynan is a freelance journalist who specializes in Central Asian affairs.